At their meeting Thursday, members of Metro Council voted 6-1 to pass the most powerful and influential transportation plan in the region. The 2023 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) includes over $68 billion in investments on 771 projects across 24 cities and three counties. It also enshrines policies that will have vast influence on how funding and capital project implementation decisions will be made for the next five years.
It’s important to keep in mind that the RTP doesn’t fund specific projects. It is just a “menu, not a funded plan” according to Catherine Ciarlo, Metro’s planning director. Local jurisdictions identify available funding and propose specific projects they’d build if/when the dollars become available. That being said, the 578-page, federally mandated plan sets into motion how cities and local jurisdictions must plan road and mobility networks.
Thursday’s vote updates the 2018 RTP that was set to expire December 6th. That abbreviated timeframe meant Metro Council had no choice but to adopt it lest they wanted to throw the entire region into a chaotic federal funding blackout. That reality was not normal. The vote was supposed to happen months ago, but Metro’s Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) that develops the RTP, saw their agendas “blown apart” (in the words of Metro Councilor Christine Lewis) for several months due to the need to discuss tolling, which set back the timeline.
The foregone conclusion that the RTP would be adopted Thursday didn’t stop dozens of activists from climate group Extinction Rebellion (XR) from airing strong concerns during a pre-meeting protest outside Metro headquarters in northeast Portland.
Wearing all red, XR volunteers held signs that read, “If you build roads, cars will come,” “Cut roads, not transit,” and “Better transit, not cars.” They followed up that action with testimony before Council.
“In the midst of a worsening climate emergency, when we must drastically and quickly reduce emissions,” said XR’s Diana Meisenhelter during official testimony, “This is a plan for the past, still car and roadways-centered, instead of what we desperately need for safe and sustainable transportation this critical decade and beyond.” Meisenhelter and several others hammered Metro Council members over the funding allocations in the plan.
“When 67% of the people in Clackamas County get up in the morning and have to go to three other counties to work — commutes that are not not easily done by bike or pedestrian or bus or transit or even by auto at this point — then we have some real equity needs within our region.”– Lynn Peterson, Metro Council president
Economist and No More Freeways co-founder Joe Cortright questioned how Metro modeled the climate impacts of the RTP’s proposed investments. “The climate analysis is simply greenhouse gaslighting of the public. The RTP is a cover-up for continued auto-dominated transport and transportation policy,” he said.
The funding imbalance concerns were not without merit — especially when you consider that the six desired outcomes of the plan include “vibrant communities,” “clean air and water” and “leadership on climate change.”
Of the $68 billion in total (near and long-term) funding and projects listed in the new RTP, $19.2 billion (including $6 billion for the Portland-Vancouver I-5 widening project) will go toward “throughways capital,” “roads and bridges capital,” and “freight access” projects, while $2.7 billion go to “transit capital,” and $3.1 billion goes to “walking and biking.” The plan sets aside an estimated $43 billion for operations and maintenance.
But while the majority of public testimony was sharply critical of the plan and urged councilors to reject it, there were notable voices who spoke highly of it.
Indi Namkoong, transportation justice coordinator with nonprofit Verde, served as a community representative on a Metro advisory committee that helped develop the plan. In her testimony she pointed out several “ambitious elements” that she felt are “really worth celebrating.” The leader of land-use nonprofit 1000 Friends of Oregon Brett Morgan also supported the plan, as did The Street Trust Executive Director Sarah Iannarone.
Among the wins these advocates celebrated (as part of the Getting There Together coalition) are groundbreaking new policies that aim to: increase spending transparency at the Oregon Department of Transportation; reform how projects are selected in the next RTP (2028); increase accountability around megaprojects; and a long-awaited update to Metro’s Regional Mobility Policy that finally shifts the main project development metric away from motor vehicle capacity (a.k.a. “level of service”) and toward a broader, people-centered calculation that includes bicycle riders, walkers, and other non-drivers.
When it came time for council members to share their thoughts, they first asked staff to address all the substantive criticisms that were shared during public testimony. Staff appeared to adequately quell councilor concerns by assuring them that anything built as a result of the RTP will still go through many layers of review, that the investments meet state targets for greenhouse gas emissions and other metrics, and that voting “no” would throw the region into disarray given the existing RTP’s expiration in just five days.
Before casting votes, council members acknowledged that the investments and projects aren’t exactly in line with Metro’s stated goals and values; but that the name of the game is progress and compromise.
Councilor Ashton Simpson, who represents District 1 (east), summed up that compromise well before he voted “yes”:
“The support of this plan from East County cities — Fairview, Troutdale, Wood Village, Gresham — was unanimous, because one they need those projects. I know that there are projects in this program that are big, and they’re coming from one entity [ODOT], but underneath all of that there are some really good projects like the Halsey Main Street project that will help support three cities and makes sure pedestrians have access to businesses housing, and other things that make a complete life.”
Councilor Mary Nolan was the sole “no” vote (as she was when Metro voted in support of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program last year), and they did so with confidence it would pass anyways. Nolan represents District 5 which includes Northwest and North Portland, portions of Southwest and Northeast Portland, plus the city of Maywood Park and part of Washington County. Nolan said the funding allocation in the RTP, “falls way short” of the region’s goals. “If we started this process with clear, authentic commitments to the goals in this document,” they said. “And we took the dollars available and asked ourselves, collectively, ‘How do we use those dollars to best deliver on those goals?’ The list we came up with we look very different than the one that’s before us today.”
For Metro Council President Lynn Peterson, the passage of the RTP is her most significant transportation achievement to date and an opportunity to put the disappointment of the failed 2020 transportation funding bond measure even further behind.
Before her “yes” vote, Peterson made it clear the plan required compromise from people with very different views on transportation. “When people don’t have ownership across this entire region, nothing will happen. And if nothing happens, then we are worse off than we were before. So progress is actually being made. It may not be made at the rate people want, but we need to move forward,” she said.
Peterson spoke on the value of “region-wide agreement,” and projects that will create living-wage jobs. Peterson then left no question about why she believes the road expansion projects in the plan are necessary. “When 67% of the people in Clackamas County get up in the morning and have to go to three other counties to work — commutes that are not not easily done by bike or pedestrian or bus or transit or even by auto at this point,” Peterson said. “Then we have some real equity needs within our region.”
Then, after underscoring the urgency for replacing the I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver (another controversial freeway expansion project prioritized in the plan), Peterson said, “I am interested in moving forward. I am not interested holding us in a pattern where we don’t actually achieve any of these objectives.”
And with that, our region’s transportation plan was passed and will be the law of the land effective December 7th.
— Stay tuned for more detailed coverage of what’s in the plan and how it will impact investments in the coming years. Learn more about the 2023 RTP on Metro’s website.